Japan, and Japanese culture, have fascinated me for as long as I can recall. In a world that is so connected, and so influenced by what’s going on everywhere else, I’ve always felt that Japan has maintained its own unique character. That character is defined by so many aspects of Japanese life, a life that appears to seamlessly blend their traditional and contemporary values.
Naturally I was pretty excited when an opportunity from Japan Tourism landed in our inbox. No more than three weeks later I was boarding a plane to Kansai International with a customised itinerary to explore Osaka, Kyoto, and the surrounding region.
It is true, Jetstar do fly direct to Japan Kansai (Osaka) from Australia, but it’s not a flight I’d recommend taking, nor is any flight with Jetstar for that matter, unless you enjoy being spoken to like a naughty child. I’d be looking to fly direct to NRT and then getting a connecting flight to KIX, or better yet, spending a couple of nights in Tokyo and getting the bullet train south. It costs about $250, and takes almost three hours, but I’m sure it’s a far better experience than doing a four hour layover at Cairns.
I arrived at KIX to meet my guide Yuko, then boarded a bus direct to Kyoto, a journey which takes about 1.5 hours. Our hotel was located across the road from the Kyoto train station, which was comfortable and handy for travel the next day. We headed straight for Yuko’s favourite restaurant Toshigami (which has an English menu) and let the friendly chef decide what we’d eat. We sipped local Sake and sampled some speciality Kyoto dishes before a late night stroll through Japan’s most famous Geisha district Gion, in the hope of spotting a Geisha shuffling between tea houses.
If you follow us on Instagram you may have seen that our trip to Gion was a success, with one Maiko agreeing to a photo – very special indeed! Our night progressed to a single room ‘shot bar’ serving only whisky, by a woman who’d been operating the tiny bar for 20 years. We then walked along the picturesque Kyoto canals, lined with Cherry Blossoms eager to bloom, to K6, a fantastic cocktail bar next door to the beautiful Ritz Carlton hotel.
Japan is home to millions of Shinto Shrines, and the Fushimi-Inari-Taisha Shrine is perhaps Kyoto’s single most impressive, and important, landmark. We caught a taxi over mid morning and it was absolute chaos! I’d recommend getting their at dawn to enjoy it without the crowds, and a solid pair of walking shoes if you intend to trek the several kilometres to the top.
At my request, our next stop was the Masumi family Bonsai Nursery, where Mr Masumi was preparing some incredible plants for a event the following week. I asked him how old his oldest Bonsai tree was and if I could see it. He said I could next time I came to visit, and that it was over 1000 years old.
Kyoto has plenty of excellent activities on offer. A walk though the Nishiki Market is a must for food lovers, as is a trip to Kyoto Gogyo for one of the best Ramens you’ll ever have. A short taxi ride out of town is the Seiryuden Temple which has captivating views of the city below, whilst the various Imperial Villas located around the city provide a wonderful look at traditional Japanese homes and Zen Gardens.
After a long day in Kyoto we boarded the train to our next destination, Sansuien Ryokan, located a 5 min drive from Akameguchi station, which is about an hour train ride from Kyoto. These traditional hot spring B&B’s are a fantastic way to experience true Japanese culture, bathing in the wonderful outdoor onsens, donning a kimono, and eating dinner on the floor of your room, where you also sleep.
A short drive the following morning found us at Akame48 waterfalls, about 6km from Nabari city. The falls are stunning and the hike is the perfect way to sweep away the cobwebs left from the numerous bottles of Sake the night before.
Enroute to the Ise Grand Shrine we stopped at Matsusaka, home of the famous beef, for a traditional Yakiniku BBQ lunch. Rare marbled Matsusaka beef, a pinch of salt and a sip of local beer. Brilliant. That evening we headed out to sample some of the Ise Region’s local seafood, including Abalone, still hand caught today by the local female free divers called the Ama.
The following morning we visited Japan’s most sacred Shinto Shrine, the Ise Grand Shrine, dating back to the third century. The buildings within the Shrine are knocked down and rebuilt every 20 years, a tradition that has gone on for the last 1300 years. The process of relocating and rebuilding the structures acts to renew the power of the spirits or deities as well as pass on the ancient techniques in carpentry, thatching and weaving, metalwork and leather skills to the next generation.
My trip concluded in Osaka, and what a place it was to finish. The city was buzzing with various events on over the weekend I was there, including the Sumo wrestling, which we disappointingly couldn’t attend, although I did catch a glimpse of some big boys leaving the stadium!
Osaka is everything I imagined a modern Japanese city to be, and in a way quite similar to New York (right down to Dotonbori, its own version of Times Square). You can walk for miles, enthralled by the various districts, one offering high fashion, the next offering niche clothing and accessories brands, and the next street food, cafe’s and restaurants, which seems to have endless lines every night. Those looking to shop should check out my earlier piece on menswear in Japan. Those looking to eat, well I’m not even sure where to start. There’s more world class Ramen, Takoyaki, Sushi, Okonomiyaki and Oden than you can begin to comprehend, and that’s just in Dotonbori.
Osaka also ticks the historical significance boxes with the Osaka Castle, one of Japan’s most famous landmarks, and the Sumiyoshi-taisha Shrine. I also hear the aquarium is superb, but I didn’t get the chance to check it out. Osaka is a superb city to explore at your own pace, and I doubt you could do justice even with a week up your sleeve.